The intense rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge universities goes back centuries but two recent campaigns related to colonial relics on campus revealed divergent responses by the ancient seats of learning: Cambridge agreed, but Oxford said “no”.
After initially appearing conciliatory to a demand from students to take down a statue of controversial British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, the institution rejected it in January amid reports that threats about the withdrawal of major donations influenced the decision.
Around the same time, students at Jesus College in Cambridge demanded a bronze cockerel – known as “okokur” - looted during a British “punitive raid” raid in 1897 in what is now Nigeria should be removed and repatriated to Benin.
Jesus College not only removed the cockerel that stood for long in the college hall, it agreed to consider its repatriation to Nigeria, which has demanded the return of all artworks plundered from the Benin empire, now part of Nigeria.
In a statement of support for students, a Cambridge university spokesperson said: “Jesus College acknowledges the contribution made by students in raising the important but complex question of the rightful location of its Benin bronze, in response to which it has permanently removed the okukor from its hall.”
A statement said the college will work with the wider university and commit resources to develop new initiatives with Nigerian heritage and museum authorities “to discuss and determine the best future for the okukor, including the question of repatriation”.
The spokesperson added: “The college strongly endorses the inclusion of students from all relevant communities in such discussion.”
Oxford students behind the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign have promised to continue their demand and said they were encouraged by the recent step by Harvard, where the law school has reportedly decided to alter its official shield following protests over the symbol’s ties to an 18th-century slaveholder.
Welcoming the Harvard move, a “Rhodes Must Fall” spokesman said: “It’s a different place but what it shows is that it is possible for institutions to take responsibility for the past, and it shows a possible path forward for Oxford.”